The Villa is an inky-dark look at two sets of best friends coping with some jaw-dropping betrayals. It unfortunately sports some predictable twists, and then takes far too many distracting excursions along its primrose pathway, all of which keeps it from pulling a higher grade.
Motivational author Chess Chandler (WIP: Swipe Right on Life!) and mystery author Emily Sheridan have been friends since they were girls, but job responsibilities and relationship issues (specifically Emily’s marriage and then very messy divorce from her accountant-husband, Matt) have pushed them apart in adulthood. After Emily’s divorce, the twosome agree to head out on an Italian holiday – to a ‘murder house,’ the Villa Aestas.
The Aestas was formerly known as the Villa Rosato, location of the Villa Rosato Horror. In 1974, Guitarist/songwriter Pierce Sheldon, fellow musician Noel Gordon, hanger on/drug supplier/possible groupie Johnnie Dorchester, and Pierce’s teenage girlfriend and her stepsister converge on the villa for a single summer. Noel is in the middle of a creative slump and trying to refresh his mind after his band broke up and the rest of its members embarked on satisfying solo careers. Pierce, a relative industry newbie, decides a retreat to write some fresh material is what he needs - but soon the month-long sojourn turns sour.
Pierce’s nineteen-year-old girlfriend Mari Godwick is a rule-breaking science fiction writer in-the-making whose entire life has been lived among the famous and neglectful; she and her stepsister ran away to live with Pierce when she was just sixteen. Mari was inspired to write a single, genius book by the events of that weekend weekend entitled Lilith Rising, which made her name, but she has not published anything since; she considers the death of her baby son when she was barely eighteen just punishment for her actions at that time. Her stepsister, Lara Larchmont, then a neophyte songwriter and guitarist, is inspired by the situation to write an album, Aestas and cultivates a sunny public persona and a decent musical career, one that’s forever dwarfed by Aestas’ success. But her music is haunted by Fleetwood Mac-style representations of messy romantic triangles which are killing everyone and everything in the lover’s pathways, and she is compared often to Carole King. The two women survived the Vila Rosato horror but their lives are forever tainted and shadowed by what they’ve been through. But who died, and who was the murderer?
Decades later, to break a writing slump and haunted by her inability to mesh with Chess, Emily decides she’s going to find out what really happened during the Vila Rosato Horror. This leads her to revelations about her relationship with Chess and the bond they share – as well as a connection between Chess and Matt.
The Villa spends a lot of time in deep character study before getting to the dual mysteries that underpin the book. It successfully brings about a sense of dread and foreboding, but a series of double-twists toward the end of the novel make no sense and read as, frankly, ludicrous.
The novel tries to build a connection between the two tales of sisterhood with an interlinked tale of infidelity, but while most of the men in these tales are equally monstrous, Hawkins’ modern women are less interesting. Chess and Emily read as interchangeable, with Chess being the clear manipulator using psychobabble to justify her choices while Emily generally wallows in her victimhood until she chooses to excise the wickedness from her life. The author has better luck with Mari and Lara, who come off as realistically naive and tortured to start with, then as realistically desperate and embittered, trying to make their lives seem bigger than they are in reaction to what they’ve been through. If the book had been about the latter twosome I definitely wouldn’t be ranking this lower than a B, but the predictability of where the modern storyline goes dragged it down for me.
Those coming to this novel hoping for romance will be quite disappointed; Pierce and Noel are both bounders to differing degrees; Matt is flatly and cartoonishly dislikable, and the only likable person around is Johnnie – and what happens to him shouldn’t happen to a dog. Only the sisterhoods here – one unhealthily close and twisted, binding the two women together forever in a choking lie, the other smashed to death in a bid for freedom – are what matters.
The Villa is an imperfect but somewhat compelling mess of a novel.
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